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Research School Network: Climbing Everest or a Walk in the Park? Surmounting the challenge of choosing words for vocabulary instruction by Kelly Ashley @kashleyenglish, author of Word Power

Climbing Everest or a Walk in the Park?

Surmounting the challenge of choosing words for vocabulary instruction by Kelly Ashley @kashleyenglish, author of Word Power

by St. Matthew's Research School
on the

Vocabulary is the Everest of language.’ With this, David Crystal reminds us of the seemingly insurmountable task of choosing words for vocabulary instruction. With over 1 million words in the English language, choosing which to teach may feel closer to the task of climbing Everest than it does to a casual walk in the park. In this post, we will explore some ideas for ensuring that the words we choose for vocabulary instruction are just right for our chosen vocabulary journey.

The EEF’s Improving Literacy in KS2 guidance (2017) outlines two approaches to vocabulary instruction that are of high-value in the primary classroom – 1. direct or explicit’ instruction of new vocabulary and 2. immersion in a language-rich environment or implicit’ instruction.

Direct vocabulary instruction can happen at any part of the day in a primary context – within English lessons (whole class or small group reading, shared writing, etc.) or in other subject-based lessons (e.g. introducing new terms related to the water cycle in science or introducing key terminology in mathematics). The key to direct’ or explicit’ instruction is that teachers are carefully selecting words to teach (beforehand) and providing myriad opportunities for learners to Power-Up’ new words, in depth and in context. With direct instruction, teacher modelling and guiding is key – helping learners to actively forge strong connections using the features of words (sounds, visual patterns, meaning). As part of the Word Power approach, I call this process Charging and Recharging’ new language – strengthening word memory over time.

However, direct’ instruction of new language is only part of the vocabulary journey. We also need to consider how language is modelled, shared and extended implicitly’ as part of a language-rich environment. What opportunities are provided for children to work collaboratively? To engage in debate and discussion? To share opinions and ideas? To hear high-quality texts being shared? To engage in reading volitionally, not always directed by an adult? This link between reading widely and often, for purpose and pleasure is a key consideration for implicit’ instruction. Nagy and Anderson (1984) found that children aged 7 – 13 encounter an average of 1 million words of text per year through their reading experiences. This exposure to high-quality texts and language is a key step on the journey; however, if we couple this with an expert teacher guide who navigates the way (through carefully-crafted direct instruction), we can give children the tools they need to effectively Power-Up language and understanding.

Beck, et al (2013) suggests that learners need to grow their vocabularies by 2,0003,000 words per year. This statistic highlights the importance of a language-rich environment. Beck also suggests that we should teach 400 new words per year as part of direct vocabulary instruction. In the Word Power approach, I call these carefully-chosen words The Weekly Top Ten’ – ten words chosen per week, all linked within a specific context (a picture book, a subject-based topic, a poem, an experience, a novel, etc.). Learners will not only learn these new words each week, but also actively Choose and Use’ language for a purpose to embed new understanding.

Here are some ideas to consider when choosing the Weekly Top Ten for direct instruction:

  • Are there any anchor’ words (central to understanding the text) that should be included? For instance, when reading the Bluebells’ spell from The Lost Words (2017), exploring bluebell’ as an anchor word unlocks opportunities to strengthen connections with other new language in the text: wood, billows, depths.
  • Can I connect new words to bigger concepts that are already familiar? When learning about the water cycle in science, explore the technical (tier 3) word precipitation’ alongside linked, descriptive (tier 2) words: downpour, deluge and shower.
  • Is the word central to the text in terms of comprehension? When reading a factual text about lexicographers’ (people who write and edit the dictionary), it would be useful to pre-teach the word lexicographer’- helping learners enter the text with knowledge to support comprehension.
  • Is it likely that children will see this word used often in other contexts? Returning back to Bluebells’ in The Lost Words (2017), focusing on lest’ for direct vocabulary instruction might not be the best choice as this isn’t likely to be a word that learners will encounter often (an elision of the Old English phrase the less that’). That’s not to say, however, that we wouldn’t give a quick explanation of this word as part of implicit instruction to support and facilitate comprehension.
  • Finally, and probably most important of all… Will learners have the opportunity to actively Choose and Use new words for REAL reading, writing, speaking and or listening purposes following vocabulary instruction? In my experience, this is often the missing map in the journey. When choosing words to teach, always think ahead to how children will choose and use new language following direct instruction.

    By selecting our Weekly Top Ten words in a specific context, with a clear idea of how learners will put words to work following instruction, we can make the vocabulary expedition less arduous. Perhaps it won’t be as easy as a walk in the park, but hopefully not the daunting task of climbing Everest!



Ashley, K. (2019) Word Power: Amplifying vocabulary instruction. Singular Publishing.

Beck, et. al (2013) Bringing Words to Life: Robust Vocabulary Instruction. Guilford Press.

Crystal, D. (2011) A Little Book of Language. Yale University Press.

EEF (2017) Improving Literacy in KS2 guidance report.‑2/

Morris, J. & Macfarlane, R. (2017) The Lost Words: A Spell Book. Hamish Hamilton.

Nagy, W.E. & Anderson, R.C. (1984) How Many Words Are There in Printed School English. Reading Research Quarterly, 19, 304 – 330.

Word Power: Amplifying vocabulary instruction (2019) is a practical resource for FS, KS1 and KS2 teachers – a treasure trove of ideas linking research and practice, helping teachers to carefully consider the what, why and how of vocabulary instruction. The dynamic and engaging vocabulary superheroes of the Word Power League outline the range of strategies that can be used to amplify vocabulary learning, in context, in the primary classroom. To find out more, visit

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